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Accessibility in the world of Web 2.0

Alex Christie

2 June 2010

The internet is constantly changing, which is why the the WCAG 1.0 (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) have finally been updated to WCAG 2.0. This version takes into account the ever-increasing changes in the technology used on the web.

There has been two main developments in recent years that have had a significant impact on web accessibility. The first of these is an increased use of AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) to serve up dynamic content. There is some concern regarding page functionality that is so heavily dependent on Javascript, but many Assistive Technologies (AT), can now actually support some basic levels of Javascript scripting. The main concern however comes from the way Javascript is being used to dynamically change on-page content.

AJAX and dynamically driven content

Websites that feature rich user-interfaces and offer user-interface controls (e.g. sliders) to dynamically and instantly change or modify on-page content in an instant prove disastrous when it comes to accessibility. On the other hand they are great for usability, with this probably being one of the very few areas where usability and acessibility are at odds with each other.

Highly dynamic page content, can prove almost impossible for keyboard-only users to navigate and use effectively. It is also fairly impossible for a screen reader to successfully interpret what is actually occuring on the page – which it needs to do, before it can even begin to then serve this information to the user. This is primarily due to the unstable nature of the page content.

For example a screen reader may be unaware that the page content has changed and will therefore read out the unmodified version of the page. Or the screen reader may have already passed the section containing the newly modified content, as it reads through the page. So it may fail to communicate the change to the user. Alternatively the screen reader may be aware of content changes, but is then forced to either re-read the entire page content every time a content change occurs or to jump to the newly modified content, thereby causing severe disorientation to the user. Both of these would quickly become very frustrating for the end-user.

One possible solution is to provide a simplified or text-only version of the website. But there has always been debates about whether this is the right approach to make websites comply with accessibility guidleines.  But in this instance, it proves to be the only real way of overcoming the accessibility boundardaries that dynamically driven content present.

Another assistive technology that may struggle are screen magnifiers. If  content updates occur outside of the magnified area, then the user will be unaware of these changes.

A few possible solutions

  • Make it clear to users that the content is updated dynamically
  • Provide the ability to disable any dynamic functionality or ensure that the content is still accessible if Javascripting is turned off (graceful degradation). If this is impossible then provide a pure HTML only version.
  • Indicate clearly where has been updated and don’t immediately move the focus to this newly updated content – causes confusion to screen readers and page magnifier users.

User-generated content

The second issue that proves a real accessibility headache, is when it comes to user-generated content (UGC). Usually the accessibility of all content can be controlled through the implementation of content accessibility guidelines and communicated through procedural training. This is to ensure accessibility conformance levels are maintained. But, even if a website achieves a high level of accessibility conformance, this can often be undermined when it comes to user-generated content.

With UGC is fairly impossible to guarantee that the content will comply with accessibility guidelines – particularly due to the speed at which it is generated and updated.

The accessibility level of user-generated content is also highly dependent on the quality of the authoring tool, in particularly in the quality of the actual markup that is generated. For example, some photo authoring tools fail to offer even basic accessibility features, such as  prompting users to enter alternative text (alt text) for images, as a mandatory requirement.

Both of the above prove to be very challenging issues particularly as browsing web content has become a far more enriching experience for the user. Care just needs to be taken that the experience can be shared by all users.

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